My fantasy, my nightmare

The unzipped jersey of Panache

I smiled as I clicked the final submit button on my Velogames.com fantasy team, confident that my picks were solid and that I would continue my winning ways. After all, I had been in the top 20 of Giro fantasy and had dominated last’s year’s @Velobeats Tour de France league, placing second overall! I was also pleased to have the ‘unzipped’ jersey icon that I designed represent my band of select warriors (and thank you all who are using it as your icon on Velogames). This was my team dressed in custom pixels. Panache was in the winning break! Or so I thought.

But fantasy cycling, like actual cycling, is a seductive mistress that caresses you one moment and stabs you in the heart the next. It appears she has turned on me with blade in hand at this year’s Tour. A dark cave of suffering and misery has replaced my time in the Velogames limelight. I feel like certain big-budget super teams who look great on paper but have no results. Thus far I have had four riders abandon. With a week to go, I sit 116th out of 128 competitors. The lanterne rouge is within my grasp.

Here is my fantasy team, thoughts on each rider, and their current fantasy status. Warning: this is not pretty.

Cadel Evans

Panache had faith in the defending champion (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I watched Cadel at the Dauphine and thought that he was on a perfect trajectory to peak for the Tour. He would limit his losses in the TTs to Bradley Wiggins and he would attack in the mountains to gain time. Upgrades to the BMC roster would fortify the Australian champion in the mountains as well.  Cadel, I thought, had learned the winning formula and showed that he could handle the pressure.

Meanwhile, Bradley would falter because he peaked too soon. The weight of the yellow jersey would be too much for him. Sky would be divided between Wiggo and Cav … blah, blah, blah…

Well, I was dead wrong. Brad is on fire and Sky have a focused TT/mountain machine that is grinding souls into oblivion and scoring massive points for others. Wiggins is handling the pressure like he’s on a group ride with a bunch of one-legged nuns. Cadel appears to be the second strongest rider … on his team (next to Tejay Van Garderen – blink and you’ll miss him as he rides past …). Riders like Vincenzo Nibali and Jurgen Van Den Broeck continue to finish in front of him. It also appears that luck has turned a blind eye on Cadel as illustrated by Puncture-gate!

Fantasy status: Only 778 points earned up to stage 14. He has earned me no stage win points. Cadel will be fighting just to make the podium, which may limit any possible bonus fantasy points.

Peter Sagan

Sagan has been the star of the TdF – and Panache’s Fantasy Team … (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

If you didn’t pick the Velvet Samurai™ then you haven’t been watching cycling this season. Multiple wins in California and Switzerland … He’s The Hulk, The Running Man (or Forrest Gump), and a descending demon, all rolled into one. As expected, he is dominating on all types of terrain and is in the clear lead for the green jersey. He has a bright future that could include an Olympic gold medal in a few weeks and/or the rainbow jersey – if not this season, surely in the next few years. You all know why I picked him, because you picked him too. Peter might be the only factor preventing me from becoming the lanterne rouge in the Velobeats league.

Fantasy status: a whopping 1,143 points earned up to stage 14. He has raked in stage win points, green jersey points and will give me bonus points for winning the green jersey.

Samuel Sanchez

Panache chose Samu over FroomeDog. #Unluck (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

Last year Samu wore the polka dots on the final podium and this year he wanted to do even better. With Alberto Contador on the sidelines, I believed that Sanchez would be Spain’s shining carrot for the Tour. Surely he would take a stage win and be top ten on mountain-top finishes! He was to be the X factor of the GC contenders. I was torn between selecting Sanchez or Chris Froome. I chose the defending Olympic road race champion – who proceeded to crash during stage eight, fracturing his right hand and injuring his left shoulder, while FroomeDog has been in perfect form. In my head, I see a Holy Grail Knight shaking his head: “You have chosen poorly.”

Fantasy status: a measly 60 points earned until he was forced to abandon.

David Moncoutie

Other than some upstart named Rein Taaramae, David Moncoutie is the Cofidis team. Known for being aggressive in the mountains and always trying to get in the break, David seemed like a sure thing for a decent price. The 2012 Tour would also likely be his last, so naturally he would want to put on a show! This is France’s greatest sporting spectacle and Cofidis would need David to get camera time and go for stage wins to satisfy sponsors and justify their selection.

But none of this was to be. Alas, Moncoutie crashed on stage 12, suffering heavy contusions to his left side and forcing him, for the first time, to abandon a Grand Tour. Cofidis now find themselves with no star while they deal with the doping-related arrest of Remy Di Gregorio and a struggling Taaramae.

Fantasy status: a dismal 20 points earned until Moncoutie was forced to abandon.

Marcel Kittel

This Argonaut was felled by a dodgy tummy … (image by Panache/ccarls1)

I’ve had my eye on Kittel since last year’s blazing performance at the Tour of Poland. We all know that this kid is fast. I selected him because he was young, healthy and had a team dedicated to getting him to the line first on the flatter sprint stages. Winning the sprints was his sole purpose and if he didn’t win, he would at least be in the top five and earn me some points.

I thought Marcel would have the stomach for victory in his Tour debut but he did not, quite literally. A stomach bug prevented Kittel from eating properly and as the Tour rolled on, he could not stay nourished. He abandoned after stage five.

Fantasy status: one point earned … that’s right.. only one freakin’ point until he was forced to abandon. All I have to say about that is … poop.

Tony Martin

Punctures, falls, abandonment for Tony Martin (image courtesy of Wikipedia)

I thought Tony Martin would be my ringer. He is the man who could have taken it to Fabian Cancellara in the prologue and put me in the lead on the first day of the Tour! But he could also be decent when the road goes up. Ha ha, I laughed, rubbing my hands together, take that other Velobeat players! Pride comes before a fall, however, and Lady Luck had different plans as she tightened her chastity belt and would not let Martin near her. Everything went wrong for Martin from the start. Before breaking his hand in the first stage, he punctured in the opening prologue, dashing his hope of claiming the yellow jersey [He was never going to beat Fabs, don’t kid yourself, Panache – Kitty.] One puncture is bad enough but then it happened again in the stage nine time trial! Discouraged and needing to mend to keep his Olympic TT hopes alive, Martin abandoned at the start of stage ten.

Fantasy status: a dismal 30 points earned until he was forced to abandon.

Johnny Hoogerland

Anybody seen Johnny? Panache hasn’t … (image courtesy of Danielle Haex)

Before the beginning of the Tour, Johnny Hoogerland publicly stated that his goal was to get the win the King of the Mountains jersey. After witnessing his panache last year, I had to believe he was sincere. Surely the horrendous crash from last year would inspire him to greatness!

Has anyone seen Johnny Hoogerland? Anybody … (sound of crickets chirping, tumbleweed rolling down the street). Johnny, your lack of activity has thrown my fantasy team into a barbed wire fence! You know how bad that hurts! Help a brother out!

Fantasy status: zero points. Goose egg. Who would have guessed that Johnny Hoogerland would have no fantasy points? None??? The Mayans might have been correct … the world might end this year.

Marcus Burghardt

I didn’t expect much from Marcus because I know his role is to protect Cadel, carry bottles, and be a good domestique.  He was my last pick because I had four extra Euros to spend and that is how much he costs. I am shocked he has earned me more points than Marcel Kittel and Johnny Hoogerland combined (I can’t believe that) … So, Marcus, chapeau!

Fantasy Status: 23 points.

Jeremy Roy

Mr Roy came into the Tour in some of the best form of his life. This was evident in the French national TT and road races where he nearly won both. Last year he was awarded the most combative rider in the entire Tour! He was in every break trying to make something happen! This year, he helped set up Thibaut Pinot’s victory in stage eight by getting in the break and turning the screws. That is all we have seen of him. Who would have thought that Roy would be playing third wheel to Pinot and Federigo?

Jeremy, where are you?  Are you hiding out with Hoogerland?

Fantasy Status: 25 points.

One thing I have learned from this fantasy-turned-nightmare team is, if I can’t pick a winning team from all the cyclists in the peloton, what hell must a team’s management go through trying to build a winning team for the Tour? Unless, of course, you’re David Brailsford…

The art of descending like a stone

Today’s stage eight at the Tour de France concludes with a 16km run, mostly downhill, to the finish in Porrentruy, a reminder that descending skills can be just as valuable as being a proficient climber. Here Panache brings us his personal insight into the art of descending like a stone.

Races can be won or lost depending on how adept a rider is. Descending is thrilling, yet scary and the only thing that can combat the fear is confident handling skills at very high speeds. But what does it actually feel like when you’re racing down a mountain at incredible speeds? And who in the peloton are masters of the descent?

If you’re the heaviest, you’ll fall the fastest

This spring I had the opportunity to attend my team’s four-day training camp in the mountains of West Virginia. Each day we rode between 90 and 120km over some of the most beautiful scenery in the eastern US. I was a little apprehensive because at 1.96 meters tall and 82kg, I’m not the greatest of climbers and we were going to be doing a lot of climbing.

Panache doing his best impersonation of Bernie Eisel – please note the facial hair …

On the first day, at about the 50km into the ride, we began to ascend a category 3 climb. I was pleased with my ride as I was the last of a select group to reach the summit. The rest of the team had been dropped and we would not be waiting for them. As I approached the top, my teammates were stuffing their short, lightweight bodies (yes, I’m jealous) with food and starting to hit the road again. I was just trying to catch my breath when one of them said to me, “Come on, Giraffe, you don’t want to get left behind here. It would be a long way back to camp if you were alone.” He was right and with those words, we began the descent.

The way up the climb had been on a long, open, steady, clean, wide road. The 11km descent was just the opposite. This road was narrow, twisted, and full of potholes, dirt and gravel. A kilometre into the descent we were reaching speeds over 80kph. A gap started to open up between me and two other teammates, and the rest of the group. The three of us were falling behind! Being the heaviest, I was told to move to the front and pick the lines. Supposedly, I could “fall the fastest”.

We needed to stay to the right-hand side of the road because there was oncoming traffic from time to time. I was doing all I could to catch the leaders but I was nervous. We were going so fast and I wasn’t confident in my ability to pick the correct lines. I was afraid. My heart rate was elevated. I had a death grip on my handlebars (a big no-no when descending) I felt like I was expending more energy going down the mountain then I had going up! And then it happened…

On one particularly hairy turn, I misjudged the line.

I was going too fast but was able to scrub some speed with my brakes before the corner. I shifted my weight to do the counter-steering technique I had been taught. Still, I had to use the entire road. I came within inches of going off the edge but somehow carved the turn and kept my bike upright. If an oncoming vehicle had been coming, I would have been toast. The two behind me recognised my error, slowed down, and picked a better line.

After that experience, I realised that I need much more practice.

The pro peloton descends

This fact is evident in the pro peloton where the speeds are 20-40kph faster than my meagre attempts. Stages 12-15 of last year’s Tour were a lesson in descending. In stage 12, the wet roads reminded Geraint Thomas how cautious and mentally acute a rider must always be while going downhill. He lost traction in a corner and had to bail off of his bike to avoid falling off a cliff. He then lost traction again moments later!

In stage 13, Thor Hushovd skillfully took time out of two French riders, David Moncoutie and Jeremy Roy on the descents. He then rode away from them both in the final kilometres to take the stage victory.

Finally, Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador schooled Andy Schleck on stage 15 during the final, rainy descent into the town of Gap, gaining over a minute. Andy would go on to complain that “a finish like this should not be allowed”. People were critical of the Schlecks but who can blame them for being cautious after Frank’s harrowing experience in the 2008 Tour de Suisse? Regardless, if the Schlecks had better descending skills, they would have had more courage.

There are plenty of current pro riders to watch and emulate when learning to descend – Fabian Cancellara, Vincenzo Nibali, Peter Sagan, David Arroyo, and Danilo Di Luca are all really good. But in my humble opinion (which means this is a fact), the greatest of all time is Paolo Savoldelli. Now retired, Paulo was known as Il Falco (the Falcon) because he could drop off of a mountain like a bird of prey. The world got a glimpse of his truly unique ability in the 14th stage of the Giro d’Italia in 1999. Flying though Italian villages, with no helmet, he would take the stage because no one would take the risks that he did. He would later use this courageous ability to win the Giro d’Italia in 2002 and 2005!

I’m no Il Falco yet, but I have been practicing a bit and my ability and my confidence have increased. We’ll see if the descents in this year’s Tour de France play such a critical role like they did in 2011. If they do, I hope Frank Schleck has been practicing as well.

Introducing Panache

Panache in action

At VeloVoices we consider ourselves to be fans first and bloggers second. As such we’re committed to bringing you the kind of cycling coverage we ourselves would like to read: informative, opinionated and above all fun. The only thing that’s been lacking from the blog during these first six months of our existence has been a little panache.

No, we’re not doing ourselves down. We like to think we’ve got a bit of style [we can hear you heckling from here – Ed], but now we really do have some panache. The tweeter known as @Kiss_my_Panache, to be exact.

As he describes himself in his VeloVoices bio:

Panache is a mediocre masters racer but an unbelievably talented cycling fan. He doesn’t race like a pro, but he sure looks like one. He likes white saddles, white bar tape, shorter bibs and perfect sock height. It’s fair to say he has a man crush on Johnny Hoogerland, Jeremy Roy and Sylvain Chavanel. You can find Panache’s snarky, 140-character ramblings on Twitter @Kiss_my_Panache.

If you’re not following Panache on Twitter – and if not, why the hell not? – you’re missing out on some real gems. Some tweeters are funny. Others are passionate. Others are truly knowledgeable. It’s a rare person who is all three. Judge for yourself. Here’s a small sample of Panache’s inimitable, well, panache, 140 characters at a time.

On his time-trialling aspirations:

Twiddling his thumbs in the down-time between the Tour de Suisse and the Tour:

Not at all jealous of the waif-like Frank Schleck:

Still not jealous:

A pragmatic view on the USADA investigation into Lance Armstrong:

We like to think we’ve found ourselves a gem at VeloVoices. Panache is now officially a Voicer – it’s like being a Trekker, but without arming the photon torpedoes – and will be bringing his unique verbal and visual stylings to the blog as he muses on the world of cycling from both a fan’s and a competitor’s viewpoint. Welcome aboard, Panache!